One-on-one with Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo inherited a potentially thankless assignment when he was hired to replace Paul Johnson, the architect of a dramatic change in fortune for a football program that had languished for decades before his appointment.

Niumatalolo not only picked up where Johnson left off, but he has taken the program even further, defeating Notre Dame twice in his first three years as coach and winning the Commander in Chief's Trophy in two of those three seasons.

What Niumatalolo does not do is promote himself. He's a soft-spoken man who puts faith and family before football but still has been able to win consistently with a program that operates at a tremendous recruiting disadvantage compared with most other Division I teams. He has already secured his third straight eight-win season and has been named a semifinalist for the first annual Joseph V. Paterno Coach of the Year Award.

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The Midshipmen will go for their ninth straight victory in the annual Army-Navy Game on Saturday in Philadelphia, so this seemed like a logical time to sit down with Ken and talk about his life and career.

Question: Let's start with the The Game. I'm guessing when you were the quarterback at Hawaii in the 1980s, you didn't envision yourself prowling the sideline at the Army-Navy game. We know what this game means to the two academies, but tell me what it has come to mean to you on a personal level.

Answer: It's a special game, and I feel honored to be a part of it. My first Army game was in 1995, and I really didn't know much about the rivalry or what it stood for. You grew up and you see it on TV and you see the midshipmen and the cadets, and the game looks very cold as you watch it. I've gained a greater appreciation being a part of this game. It's one of those things where you have to be there to truly appreciate it. I always go back to this one event in my first game in 1995, going on our buses and seeing all the corps of cadets in their gray coats marching on and the midshipmen in their black coats getting ready to march on. It gives you goose bumps. It's almost like a war. It's just a special thing to be a part of.

Q: When you were a high school football star in a state [Hawaii] where the U.S. Navy might be more prominent than anywhere else in the country, did you consider the Naval Academy?

A: No, I maybe thought about the Coast Guard Academy because my dad was in the Coast Guard, but I never thought much about the academies.

Q: Then you play at Hawaii, so until you get here — you see the game on TV — but you don't have a real feel for what the thing is all about. I'm sure you knew what it was, since you grew up in the state that's a Navy stronghold. It might be the state that is most associated with the Navy.

A: In Hawaii, generally, there are so many military bases, not just Navy. Hickam Air Force Base. The Schofield Army base. You've got a lot of military installations on there, but I think, for me, growing up on the islands, I was not really familiar with the East Coast, not really familiar with any of it. So coming here was an eye-opener for me, but it's been a great experience.

Q: Navy has beaten Army eight consecutive times, but the Black Knights are no pushover this year. They've averaged more than 28 points per game, and they need this one to guarantee their first winning season since 1996. They've got a lot to play for.

A: This is by far the best Army team that we've played since we've been back here, since 2002, but it doesn't surprise me how well they're doing. Coach Rich Ellerson, in my mind, is as good a football coach as there is in the country. So I know with him going to West Point, their program would change immediately, so some of the results and success of their program doesn't surprise me.

Q: From the outside looking in, I think a lot of football fans would consider a victory over Notre Dame to be much more important to the prestige of the program than a victory over Army. Explain to a football fan with no military connection to the Naval Academy why it's so important to "Beat Army."

A: That's what this place is about. This is the biggest game of the year. You just walk into our weight room and see on the weights — "Beat Army." As a plebe, the first thing that the midshipmen are taught here is that saying, "Go Navy, Beat Army." Besides creating military officers for the Navy and Marine Corps, here at the Naval Academy, anything that we do from an athletic standpoint or a competition standpoint, we want to beat the Black Knights.

Q: Is that about shaping a certain kind of sportsman, a certain kind of military officer, certain kind of person, because it is a civil rivalry? You will go on together to pursue the same goals.

A: I see it more as two institutions that have very similar goals. They are both part of our country to create officers for our country to lead our military, so even though they are attacking in different venues, so to speak, their goal is to produce officers. From a competition standpoint, this is about beating your brother. I kind of look at it as two brothers in the backyard trying to beat each other up or win a basketball game or whatever the case may be. When it's all said and done, you have respect and love for your brother, but while you're competing, you try to beat his brains in.

Q: There's a lot made of the obstacles you face from a recruiting standpoint. How difficult is it to convince a talented high school player to give up any realistic dream of playing professional football to accept a career as a Naval officer instead?

A: We feel like there are enough good football players across the country that are good students, that have the mindset of the military, of coming to the military and being at a military school. Now, we're not going to find too many first-round draft choices or guys that are going to go to the SEC or play in the Big Ten, but we find enough good football players that are great students that understand the great opportunity that it is to come to the Naval Academy. We feel like you get enough of those guys and you build on the positives that the academy has to offer — the great qualities of integrity, character, work ethic … hard workers … all those intangibles we build on to hopefully build a team that maybe will overcome some deficiencies in talent. Maybe we're not as fast as other people, but we build on those other intangibles to help us overcome some of our weaknesses.

Q: Paul Johnson, several times over the years, rebuked me for asking the question about succeeding with these players, with the [non-football] qualities they have, saying that intellection IQ, academic IQ, football IQ are different things. He would bristle when I would say that when you run this intricate offense that you run, the fact that you have highly intelligent players, highly disciplined guys, guys who would welcome that kind of discipline — both personal and athletic — that all works together. Do you feel that all works together?